JUPITER, Fla. - Hall of Famer Frank Robinson looks so trim in his newMontreal Expos uniform that it's difficult to believe he is 66 years old orthat he has spent nearly a half-century in professional baseball.
Indeed, he looks so good - so energized to be back on the field as amajor-league manager- that you wouldn't know unless you asked him whether hefeels a little uncomfortable in Expos attire.
"I'm wearing an Expos uniform," Robinson said yesterday, "but I considermyself a Baltimore Oriole. I'm going to do everything I can to help the Exposwin this year, but I'll always be an Oriole."
No one should be particularly surprised by this. Robinson reached thepinnacle of his major-league playing career in Baltimore, where he won the1966 American League MVP award and a world title immediately after he wasacquired from the Cincinnati Reds. He also spent his most enjoyable season asa manager with the Orioles, whose amazing "Why Not?" performance in 1989remains one of the most remarkable examples of over- achievement in baseballhistory.
But Robinson's emotional attachment to the franchise was sorely tested bythe disappointments that followed his dismissal as manager. He moved into thefront office - hoping eventually to become general manager - only to get lostin a drawn-out management shuffle when former owner Eli Jacobs was forced intobankruptcy and the team was bought at auction by Peter Angelos.
"There were no promises made, but certain things were said," Robinson said."I was put in position for things to happen to me and for me, but they didn'thappen. Just the way I was treated by the organization, it hurt. It reallydid.
"I gave them a lot of good years. I gave them everything I had. I justdidn't think I was treated fairly at the end."
He spent nearly five years as an assistant to former club president LarryLucchino and general manager Roland Hemond, but was fired in December 1995,soon after Pat Gillick replaced Hemond as GM.
Robinson already occupies an important place in baseball history. He wasthe game's first African-American manager in each league - breaking themanagerial color barrier with the Cleveland Indians in 1975 and becoming theNational League's first black manager when he took over the San Francisco Giants in 1981.
Now, he's focused on something even bigger - perhaps the chance to parlayhis new role in Montreal into a high-ranking management position with the teamif it moves to the Washington area - but he badly wanted to make hismanagement mark in Baltimore.
"I spent five years as assistant general manager," he said. "I wasself-taught. I just didn't get the help. I didn't get the cooperation I felt Iwould get to further myself and put myself into position to have the knowledgeand experience to take the next step - to become a general manager."
Some of the residual bitterness is directed at Angelos, though he did notown the team when Robinson returned to the front office after his three-plusyears as Orioles manager. "He promised some things at the end," Robinson said,"but never had the courtesy to talk to me and just say, `Hey, it just didn'twork out.' "
Angelos could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Robinson moved into an executive role in the commissioner's office,coordinating the effort to reduce the time of games and later becoming thesport's czar of discipline. Perhaps that would have been the final plateau ofhis great baseball career if not for the fallout from commissioner Bud Selig'sannouncement in November that Major League Baseball intended to disband twofranchises.
The strange chain of events that followed left the Expos without an owneror a front office staff. Selig asked Robinson to manage the club for the 2002season. And that's how he came to be wearing an Expos uniform and overseeingthe team's first full-squad workout yesterday at the Roger Dean Stadiumcomplex that the Expos share with the St. Louis Cardinals.
"I didn't want anybody else managing this ballclub," he said.
For one year, history can wait, but Robinson hasn't given up hope ofknocking down a few more barriers before he retires from baseball. The"burning desire" to be a general manager has passed, but it has been replacedby the motivation to open another door for minority executives.
"My focus now is to be part of an ownership group and maybe be thepresident of a club," he said.
It isn't difficult to put two and two together and come up with theWashington/Northern Virginia situation. The Expos don't figure to spend morethan one more season in Montreal, and there is plenty of room to wonder ifbaseball really will go through with its plan to disband the franchise. Ifnot, the team will need someplace to go, and the Washington area has beendesignated by Selig as the prime candidate for relocation.
Robinson's ties to the region would be an asset to whatever ownership groupsucceeds in acquiring the club, though he said it wasn't his originalintention to put his foot in the door. "That's not the reason I'm here, butthat's a possibility," Robinson said.
Becoming the first African-American team president in baseball wouldn't bea bad way to top off a great major-league career, something Robinson iswilling to concede but insists on putting in proper perspective.
"It doesn't matter if I'm the first, second or third," he said. "It wouldbe nice if I was the first. It's important for minorities to move into thosepositions, but my No. 1 desire is not to be a pioneer. My No. 1 priority is tobe a baseball man. I want to contribute to this game.
"I'm a baseball man. It's in the blood."